Book Review by April Alvarez
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The New York Times reported on 20 August 2009: “The Central Intelligence in 2004 hired outside contractors from the private security contractor Blackwater as part of a secret program to locate and assassinate top operatives of Al Qaeda, according to current and former government officials.” This identifies the small teams (referenced in a June revelation to Congress by the current CIA chief Leon Panetta) as contractors – guns for hire in a program that captured or killed no operatives and spent millions of dollars.
How did it happen that not only our military but also one of our primary national intelligence agencies is using contractors in a foreign country to kill people, or in this case, not to kill people they were hired to kill?
Some threads of answers may be found in Nina Berman’s photographic book, Homeland . Berman has lighted on the noise in our political/military/social environment to question the role and boundaries of the newly christened, intertwined Homeland complex in our lives.
Props to Nina. She created a searing image of wartime sacrifice with her photos of veterans in her book Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq, most poignantly the image of the couple in Marine Wedding. Along the way from the events of 9/11 through the production Purple Hearts, Berman must have been paying attention to the things that didn’t add up, with the results sorting themselves out in Homeland.
The book itself is a small marvel. The size and thickness suggest an information book – not unlike one of those ubiquitous National Geographic series books on Lewis and Clark or the Everglades. Floating within this framework is the idea that the reader is about to see an in-depth look at something familiar. Is Homeland familiar? Have we become accustomed to the rituals, lifestyles and events shown in its pages?
In practical matters the printing and layout are well done, the binding is a little seamy but looks like it will hold up. A white border on each page adds to that official encyclopedia feeling. The even, almost monochrome palette of the book is interrupted by some seriously garish disturbances as if the reader is being drug[ged] into 1976. Even though a number of images deal in low light and blur, Berman knows exactly what she is focused on in each frame.
The book is divided into three sections: PREPARE; BELIEVE; DEFEND. Berman’s images are tense with the realization that a number of similar and connected events are/were occurring in separate parts of the country. Whatever is being photographed is emblematic of a deeper issue, but one that has changed in some way during this cycle of events. Berman’s presence as an observer – a keeper of the moment – is fully felt in the images.
The book brings to mind Jeff Jacobson’s influential My Fellow Americans. Both books have a disarmingly personal photographic style. And both take note that a cycle of events needs closer scrutiny, with Jacobson fabulously chronicling the underlying myths of the Reagan years.
Before delving into the three sections and the final few pages, I want to overanalyze the opener: a cloud-filed frame with the silhouette of a video camera on the left, pointed downward at a hand holding an American flag on the bottom right. Interesting that a time when both ends of the political spectrum feel the country is headed toward a dangerous precipice (go to a Town Hall Health Care Yell Meeting if you don’t believe me) and “the media” is viewed as an accomplice and as a culprit, that Berman questions whether the media in this turbulent time ever gets beyond superficial portrayals, in one shot. Like the TV game Jeopardy, Berman tends to provide answers in the form of a question. While the book makes deep forays into subliminal trends, there are times when an idea is so succinctly captured that there is really no more to add.
In PREPARE, Berman takes us through several disaster simulations and emergency drills. A voyeur aspect arises in this observation of a simulation of a catastrophe. Anyone who has served on an EMT or Fire Company knows that drills are an important part of the job, but we start to ask questions when the drill costs $16 million dollars, or when teams fly to Indiana to be paid to be part of a nuclear attack drill, or when participants dress as Arabs to be targeted as the enemy. Who benefits? Who is making money in the GWOT (Global War on Terror)? How did a simple fire department drill evolve into shipping people to some site in Indiana to simulate nuclear war? How does this infiltrate our everyday perceptions? Is this my country? And a goat?
There is a segue from an image of three people in Middle Eastern attire (costumed in a simulation drill) to another dressed in Middle Eastern attire (costumed in a burqa as part of Missionary Day at a church) to open the section entitled BELIEVE. We later see this costumed person at the same event with two people in the background costumed as peanuts – note she is serving peanuts on her tray. Two really nice things happen in the ordering of the images: first, transitions happen between sets of images – not only visual transitions but transitions in the realms of ideas – and second, gradations within each set that take us from the events that seem more or less mundane or harmless to those that raise serious questions.
How do our representations effect our perceptions? Are we able to control our enemies by costuming ourselves in their traditional garb? What happens when we use the attire of anther group to make a metaphoric point in religion? As we move through this section Berman shows us images of people using the military as a way to represent Christian ideals at churches in Louisville and Colorado Springs. Militarism slinks in as patriotism. Then children are brought into this culture, as parts of idealized families, as worshippers in militarized uniforms, and in faint references to the Christian soldier – an idea that is certainly not new. BELIEVE is not about the military becoming religious, it is about churches becoming militarized, in look if not in intent.
In DEFEND Berman opens with the 4th of July, kids on bikes, wearing enough red white and blue to keep an Old Navy in business for a decade. Cub scout uniforms, streamers. But in a strangely haunting turn, the kids are wearing red and white and blue masks as they start out on their bikes, a menacing reminder that representation and identity are often assumed accoutrements, and that costumed, masked, and identical we feel safe. The section moves through military life: the wicked humor of a “Give War a Chance” bumper sticker through a huge Army parade, and hovers over the role we give our children in this life. A young girl sits on a mat watching helicopters over a break of pines at Fort Bragg. We do, as a country, have a standing military, and the men and women who serve should have an opportunity to show their families what they do. But when did we start having weapons displays in the Bronx and in Times Square to let children handle guns like toys, or allow them to aim blanks toward live targets dressed, again, in Middle Eastern attire?
Berman raises these questions and then takes us through what at first appears to be basic training but is military training of civilian police SWAT teams. The chapter closes in Cindy Shermanesque images of men under fences in obstacle courses. The visual grammar of being trapped by all this training will not bear full fruit unless you also look at Purple Hearts. Berman takes us through powerful portrayals of our current way of life. Giant Jesus. Big Bush. Confiscated crap from airports being tagged to sell on Ebay. Military wear as fashion. And the blazing scenic image of the Stealth Bomber over a grungy Atlantic City beach that wraps the cover of the book. The final image holds Berman’s purpose and passion: which way are we going?
I do take issue with Berman’s fictional narrator. While it adds a wonderful layer of exploration into the concepts of identity and illusion, I seriously question whether Berman diminishes the brilliant narrative created by the photographic work. The fictional narratives are not over the top, in fact, I find all these scenarios perfectly believable. But in creating a fictional voice to fit on one page, the reality of individual lives falls by the wayside. Maybe I see the people who fill people Berman’s images too often and while it’s easy to dismiss the single-minded commitment to the GWOT in rural America or the embrace of neo-conservative values, it’s harder to reconcile it with the complex tasks of living in a community where the same person is a nurse at your hospital or a fireman who goes out on calls 18 times a week as a volunteer. We tend to dismiss the “other.” In a book unraveling American myths, questioning whether freedom is an oppressor, religion a peacemaker, and the military a protection, this fictional narrator blurs the focus.
The image that haunts me, finally, is the white clapboard house with red shutters and door, beribboned picket fence leading us into a yard festooned with 4th of July decorations. What are our freedoms? I’m now reading “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” by Frederick Douglas. We’ve always had fictional narratives about our country. Maybe Berman is pointing out that we need to examine our narratives to understand who we are. The more difficult question is: who do we want to be?
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